THE FREE PRESS
by Hilaire Belloc
(IHS Press, Norfolk, Virginia, 2002, 95pp, $19.95
Available from AD Books)
When Hilaire Belloc refers to "the free press" in the recently reissued volume of the same name, he is speaking of a concept that should not be confused with what most today would think of as synonymous with "freedom of the press."
Quite the contrary. In the new, redesigned, and fully referenced edition of The Free Press, an incisive essay on the manipulation of news and opinion, Belloc makes the point that "the Press" of his day - what we now call the "media" - was anything but "free."
He discusses and dissects the phenomenon of media growth, its concentration in the hands of powerful men, its impact on public, social, and moral life, and, possibly most frightening, its ability to suppress and/or distort truth and warp thinking. He tells us that "The development of Capitalism [in the late 19th century] meant that a smaller and yet smaller number of men commanded the means of production and of distribution" of newspapers; and thus of news and opinion.
But Belloc offers more than just a critique of what in his day constituted a "managing" of news and opinion by the controlling forces. With thoroughness, yet with an economy of detail, he delves into such topics as the change in news reporting from a civic responsibility to a profit-driven enterprise; and to the advent of paid advertising as the lifeline of the "news industry's" corporate survival, and upon which most, if not all, major journalistic decisions hinge. In Belloc's words, "[Advertising] became more and more the basis of profit", and a newspaper, "if it was of large circulation, was ... a venture dependent wholly on its advertisers."
He also goes on to explore the means by which the media moguls of his time could (not unlike today) "make or break" politicians; or for that matter, could be instrumental in the making or changing of laws.
Thus it is interesting to note an example of how the more things have changed in the "media world," the more they have obviously stayed the same. Even some of those who earn their living through the modern media are unhappy with today's version of what Belloc called the "official press." Molly Ivins, a well-known US liberal columnist, recently pronounced that, "As far as the media conglomerates are concerned ... [they] are just profit centres." But she had a more biting, philosophical criticism: "That the media have a public responsibility that is protected by the [US] Constitution gets lost in the profit chase."
This and numerous other examples of the parallels between "the Press" of today and 100 years ago are found in this book's well-composed preface, which makes a thoughtful and entertaining complement to Belloc's classic essay, and gives it an updated and fresh-faced immediacy.
The preface illuminates how Belloc's words have an almost eerie, deja vu quality about them, to the extent that, if we didn't know better, we could be persuaded that he was writing in the 21st-century rather than the early-1900s. Such was the man's penetrating vision of not only what things were, but what they were likely to be.
In this expose of the shortcomings, not to say abuses, of the "fourth estate," Belloc distinguishes between what he calls the "free press" (i.e., the small, independent, sometimes underground publications of his day) and the "official press" (the corporate leviathans who dominated news and opinion dissemination in the early 20th century much as their even larger counterparts do today). And the publisher's preface in this spruced-up edition of The Free Press makes a similar distinction as it describes the media "industry" in modern America. Today, scores of small, Internet communications vehicles have assumed the role of the "free press;" and the "official press" now consists of ever-expanding, monopolostic conglomerates of TV, radio, cable, print, movies, and publishing - often all under one corporate umbrella.
Will Rogers, an American contemporary of Belloc's, also had a ready wit and a penchant for both writing and speaking his mind with social commentary that often had a sting to it. Like Belloc, he was an avid newspaper reader, but Rogers had a self-deprecating saying that he used frequently: "All I know is what I read in the papers."
Readers of The Free Press are likely to conclude that Belloc would probably have countered: "Don't be too sure, Will."